Follow these tips to score on late-season blacktail hunting.
"It's prime deer time," I whispered to my son, Tyler, as the sun slipped below the skyline beyond the coastal mountains.
Below us, the pink and blue hues of the subdued December sunset shimmered on the river bend. Tyler carried in his pocket a youth tag for a late-season blacktail hunt, and time was ticking away on our weekend in the woods.
The colorful fall hardwood leaves had fallen to the forest floor, enabling us to glass ridges in every direction. Deer surrounded us — seemingly browsing on every ridgetop and knoll within sight.
That was the good news. The bad news was that there were no bucks on those benches. By December, a bunch of bucks have already gone home with hunters, and glassing for antler tips can seem literally pointless.
Enough deer milled around us that it became a shell game, trying to figure out which ones we had already glassed and determined to be does. We glassed the same deer over and over, until suddenly walnut brown antlers materialized on one of them.
The buck presented a long, awkward uphill shot, and Tyler struggled to find and keep the walking buck in his scope as it moved through tall grass and blackberry patches on uneven terrain.
Finally, the buck paused. Tyler didn't.
At the shot, the buck reacted as a hit deer should, except that it trotted uphill away from us instead of the path of least resistance a mortally wounded deer typically chooses.
As sunlight faded in the sky, we followed, and the buck occasionally offered glimpses, but no good shots, until finally it reached a fence bordering private property. Unable to summon the strength to leap the fence, the buck stopped, and Tyler stopped him for good.
The grassy hillside and fallen leaves made for an easy drag down to the river and the road where the truck waited for us as the moon shining down through the bare trees lit the way. As we loaded the deer in the truck, a passing motorist slowed and gave Tyler a thumbs up.
LATE-SEASON BLACKTAIL PLANNING
Whether you tote a tag for a special late-season blacktail hunt, or still have an unpunched general-season tag burning a hole in your pocket, the window of opportunity is closing quickly for this season, and you need to make the most of every remaining moment you spend in the field.
As the seasons change in the blacktail woods, so do the game and the game plan. The deer you scouted this summer may be long gone, and so is the element of surprise.
Deer have been hunted for months now, and they're getting wise to your game. Gone are the long days of late summer and early fall, when bucks in velvet shunned the brush to forage in openings early in the evenings. The fall is waning, and so is the rut. That's the bad news.
The good news is that deer are more concentrated now on winter range, and the leaves on the hardwoods in those lower elevations have fallen, opening up the forest canopy to your optics.
And unlike those dog days of early autumn, when blacktails seem to seek out the thickest thickets they can find during daylight hours, cooler temperatures keep deer out and about for longer periods during the day.
All things considered, it's a good time to have a blacktail tag and some time to kill. But time is running short, so you need to have a good plan and a good backup plan. Or two. Here are four late-season tactics that could help you tie your tag to a late-season blacktail buck.
SHAKE, RATTLE AND CALL
While the rut is winding down in the blacktail woods, bucks don't just turn it off like a light switch. There's no "Dear Buck" letter or break-up text to tell them when it's really over.
Rattling can simulate the sounds of sparring bucks and bring a rival in to your setup.
This is where the congregation of deer in a smaller area of winter range works to your advantage, because there's a good chance of a buck being within earshot.
When you set up and start rattling, be prepared to be confronted quickly and at short range. Many hunters get caught off guard by bucks that appear quickly and quietly, and they aren't prepared to shoot. Don't expect him to give you plenty of notice by sounding the charge from a distance.
It used to be that rattling meant you had to carry antlers or synthetic antlers around in your pack, but now rattle bags take up much less space in your pack and they're easy to shake or manipulate to create rattling sounds. These sell for anywhere from $10 to $30, and there are even YouTube videos to show you how to use them effectively.
More on Blacktails
Using calls and scents of does in estrus can pull in bucks that are still looking for love in all the wrong places. Plenty of options are available now, and many of the calls are simple to use, so you don't have to be champion caller to sound like a desperate doe.
Using all of these tactics together can be the hot ticket, because the sound of a sexy doe in the area reinforces the ruse of bucks sparring for her favor, and the scents will help not only attract bucks but also cover your own scent for bucks that approach from downwind. You can score a rattle bag, a doe bleat call and a bottle of scent or lure for less than the cost of a pizza. And because we're in the final days of the season now, this is no time to hold anything back.
TAKE A STAND
Most current blacktail hunters didn't grow up using tree stands and blinds, because those fell into that category of tactics employed only by whitetail hunters, as did rattling, calling and applying scents.
But as a recording artist from northern Minnesota (where they hunt whitetails with tree stands and blinds in the birch) once crooned, the times they are a-changing.
Blacktails, particularly mature bucks, approach any opening cautiously, scanning with their eyes, ears and that super-sensitive nose.
A good blacktail hunter I know on the coast once said blacktails can smell what you're thinking.
Simple movements like turning your head, flicking a tick off you or picking your nose can bust you when a buck hangs back in the shadows of the treeline to scan the opening.
As habitual as many blacktails are, they know every pine cone in the area, so your outline can look way out of place, even sitting against a tree or behind a log.
I can see a hillside of buckbrush out my living room window, and it's amazing how easy it is for me to spot a blacktail without even trying as I pass a window and my eye catches a leg or white butt that isn't usually there. It works the same way for deer when you're out of place in their living room.
That's where a blind, placed well before your hunt so deer have a chance to get used to it, can hide your outline and your movements, and even help keep the wind from carrying your scent.
Just make sure the openings allow shooting lanes where you need them, and guard against windows in the back of the blind backlighting you. Also guard against theft. My son even had a blind stolen from my family's property once. There are more people around than you think.
A tree stand above a buck's line of sight and smell can get your scent off the ground and give you a bird's eye view of any deer using the area.
Whether you use a ground blind or a tree stand, choose a spot within shooting distance of a well-used food or water source, or where major trails intersect.
FEAST YOUR EYES
Unlike the hot early seasons when deer lay low in the timber and brush for most of the day, blacktails actively feed throughout the day in the cooler temperatures of late fall and early winter. This, coupled with the fact that their winter range is typically more open, makes spot-and-stalk a more effective tactic later in the season.
Morning and evening are still the peak times of activity in the late season, but don't head back to camp for a nap once the sun is up, because deer will be up and down throughout the day, alternatively feeding to take in calories critical for their winter survival and resting to conserve them.
Even when resting, blacktails are not as reclusive this time of year, often lying down on open hillsides, soaking up the warmth of the sun they shunned a couple of months earlier.
Here's where good binoculars are worth their weight in gold and a spotting scope is worth its weight in your pack. Before you invest the precious hunting time and energy to cross a canyon to stalk a deer lying next to a log on a far ridge, you want to know it's a buck you want that badly.
When hunting for late-season blacktails on winter range, key on food sources such as buckbrush, blackberries and oaks. All offer just enough cover to make deer feel somewhat secure, but good optics will allow you to pick these places apart and spot browsing blacktails. While hunting special late-season youth seasons, my son Tyler took a pair of bucks in blackberries and a record-book blacktail in buckbrush.
PLAY YOUR WILD CARD
When you've seemingly played all your cards, your ace in the hole might need to be wild. Perhaps it's using a decoy, or possibly even bait.
Be sure to check the big game regulations governing the use of decoys and bait for deer where you're hunting. Some regulations allow big game decoys for bowhunting, but not for rifle, and some only permit bait for certain big game species.
Much of blacktail winter range is private property, and deer descending on crops and livestock feeding operations can wear out their welcome in a hurry, so consider asking permission to hunt where you see deer on private land.
If nothing else, you might just gain permission to hunt the region's proliferating populations of geese.
One recent fall, when the season was slipping away like the last leaf on an oak tree, I endured a miserable, cold, windy morning with still no luck and no buck before returning to camp to thaw out. I poured a cup of coffee and pored over my map, which revealed a pocket of public land accessible by a road between nearby farms.
Once there, I found a gut pile. Good spot, bad timing, I thought. But I looked the place over and saw deep gullies leading down the hill toward the farms below. If a buck were around on a nasty day like this, that's where he'd go to get out of the wind. I was right. Up jumped a buck, up came my rifle, and back down he went.